The little man before whom Henry IV had stood half-frozen, Gregory VII., didn’t become pope in the usual manner. He had not been elected behind closed doors by cardinals but proclaimed pope by the people.

His name was actually Hildebrand. His insight and integrity had made him advisor to five popes, and he preferred working behind the scenes to foster reform. That reputation earned him the respect of the people.

During the funeral of Pope Alexander II in 1073, the crowds began shouting “Hildebrand shall be pope!” When Hildebrand tried to ascend the pulpit to quiet the people, Cardinal Candidus stopped him. “Men and brethren,” shouted the cardinal. “We cannot find for the papacy a better man, or even one his equal. Let us elect him.” The cardinals and clergy, using the ancient formula, all exclaimed, “St. Peter elects Gregory (Hildebrand) pope.”

Gregory VII tried to bring integrity and revival to the church, but many church leaders opposed him. One who didn’t was his friend Hugo, a monk in Cluny. On January 22, 1075, the pope wrote to his friend about his burdens:

The Eastern Church fallen from the faith, and attacked by infidels from without. In the West, South, or North, scarcely any bishops who have obtained their office regularly, or whose life and conduct correspond to their calling, and who are actuated by the love of Christ instead of worldly ambition. Nowhere princes who prefer God’s honor to their own, and justice to gain. The Romans among whom I live are worse than heathens. And when I look to myself, I feel oppressed by such a burden of sin that no other hope of salvation is left me but in the mercy of Christ alone.

Hildebrand did his best to free the church from corruption and from political control by secular princes. But frostbitten Henry IV eventually regained strength enough for revenge. He marched to Rome, reduced it nearly to ruins, and drove Gregory into exile. The pope died in Salerno, heartbroken, in 1085.

No hope suckled him but the mercy of Christ alone.
Only God can save me, and I calmly wait for him.
I feel like a shaky fence or a sagging wall.
You want to bring me down from my place of honor.
Only God gives inward peace, and I depend on him.
God is our place of safety.
(Psalm 62:1,3–5,8)

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 5: The Middle Ages (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1907), p. 55.

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 22.

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